Is Nikita Kucherov sprawled on the ice what the NHL wants to see?

·5 min read

So we will have a Game 7 in Tampa on Friday, and perhaps that is how it should be.

The Islanders are a smart, tough and accomplished group, so it should come as no great surprise that they are the first team in the past two postseasons to take the Lightning to the brink of elimination.

With that in mind, this is neither condemnation nor complaint. It is simply a question.

Is this what the NHL wants?

By that, I mean superstars sprawled on the ice. Referees acting as if they see nothing. And league officials promoting the narrative of the Stanley Cup being the most difficult trophy to win by turning the entire postseason into a war of attrition.

It is impossible to tell the story of New York’s 3-2 overtime win in Game 6 on Wednesday night without exploring the play that knocked Nikita Kucherov out of the game on his first shift.

The puck was elsewhere on the ice when New York defenseman Scott Mayfield cross-checked Kucherov with a referee facing them from just a few feet away. There was no penalty called on the play, and seconds later Kucherov skated off the ice and into the night. Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after the game he had no update on Kucherov’s injury.

“They said they didn’t think it was malicious or anything. So it is what it is,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “They don’t have the chance to look at it on replay like we do. We’re not going to complain about the officiating. Nothing we can do about it now.”

If that was the explanation, it has a whiff of truth to it. While the play clearly injured Kucherov, it was not the type of violent hit that immediately makes you wince. But that doesn’t change the reality that it was a penalty. A clear, blatant penalty that ultimately sent the best player on the ice into the locker room for the remainder of one of the most important games of the year.

So, again, is this what the NHL wants?

It’s true that calling a penalty on Mayfield may not have altered the outcome of the game. Yes, it would have given Tampa Bay a power play, but the Lightning eventually jumped out to a 2-0 lead and they were unable to hold it. That’s on them. And Kucherov would have still been hurt whether or not a penalty was called.

But there’s a much larger issue at stake here. If referees are going to ignore penalties based on some existential goon standard, this is going to be the end result. Players will push the envelope farther and farther, and superstars will end up on IVs instead of ice.

Cooper said he was not told about the “malicious” explanation but seemed incredulous at the thought.

“I cannot confirm that. I don’t know if that was said,” Cooper said. “It’d be weird, though, to say it wasn’t malicious, yeah. Because I don’t think that’s in the rulebook, that a crosscheck has to be malicious. I don’t think that word is in there. But I can’t confirm that was said.

“I just know it happened really close to one of the officials. He didn’t see it. Move on.”

The problem is that the NHL keeps moving on. This is not the first time this issue has been raised this month. And it’s also not the first time that referee Chris Lee was on the ice for an obvious penalty that went uncalled.

In Game 3 of the Montreal-Las Vegas series, Corey Perry was bloodied by a high stick in overtime but there was no call. In Game 4, Brayden McNabb punched Nick Suzuki in the head with Lee standing a few feet away, and no penalty was called.

On Hockey Night in Canada, former NHL defenseman Kevin Bieksa was dumbfounded by the non-calls.

“It’s prison rules,” he said.

Craig Simpson, another former NHL player, was equally chagrined on the show after watching Montreal’s Shea Weber and Vegas’ Tomas Nosek punch, cross-check and slash each other before a whistle was finally blown.

“If that’s your standard … I mean, Chris Lee you (could) call four penalties there on both sides,” Simpson said, according to the Montreal Gazette. “There’s the frustration you have of what the standard is of what you call and don’t call.”

Montreal fans circulated a petition calling for Lee’s firing. At last count, it was up to 27,000 signatures.

Whether Lee is at fault is only a small part of this story. The bigger issue is the NHL’s negligence. Or maybe culpability is the better word.

This is not just about the outcome of a playoff game, this is about the safety of players. It’s about the integrity of the sport.

The NHL should not be reveling in the perception of the game’s toughness at the expense of some of the world’s best players.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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